Priscilla Renea: Hits and Misses
Priscilla Renea went from YouTube sensation to mega-hit songwriter. She’s indefatigable, and she’s doing things her way.
Priscilla Renea is a renowned solo musician and a hit songwriter for such artists as Demi Lovato, Rihanna, and Madonna.
Renea was born in Vero Beach, FL, in 1988. She began posting her music to YouTube in her teens, building a following on that site. She moved to Atlanta at age 18 and signed with Capitol Records, who released her debut album Jukebox in 2009. After she was dropped by the record label when the album failed to live up to sales expectations, Renea moved to California and started writing songs for other musicians.
In 2010, Cheryl Cole scored a UK number 1 with Renea’s song “Promise This.” Rihanna had a UK top 10 hit the following year with “California King Bed.” Renea also contributed to Billboard hits for Chris Brown (“Don’t Wake Me Up,” 2012), Fifth Harmony (“Worth It,” 2015), Kelly Clarkson (“Love So Soft,” 2017), and Ariana Grande (“imagine,” 2018). She co-wrote “Timber,” a Billboard number 1 for Pitbul and Ke$ha in 2013. Carrie Underwood’s version of her song “Somethin’ Bad” has been the opening theme for NBC’s NFL coverage since 2016.
Renea released Coloured, her second solo album, in 2018.
It’s going down
I’m yelling timber
You better move
When Priscilla Renea sings she imagines her voice is an instrument.
Let’s make a night
You won’t remember
Sometimes it’s a violin, other times a trumpet, or a guitar, and occasionally it’s actually a whistle.
AJC: So, it’s above soprano. It’s the highest range of the human voice. And it sounds like?
ACJ: Do that again, do that again.
AJC: Oh my Lord.
These days, she’s used to people’s shocked reactions to this extremely rare vocal gift, but growing up Renea’s innately musical family wasn’t exactly fawning over her talents.
Priscilla Renea: I thought everybody could do it. My mom was a singer, the first woman I would hear doing those whistle notes, and my dad could sing also. He had kind of like a… Always and forever — Like very smooth, like The Temptations, and my mom had this big voice, and my older brother, you know, he wanted to be a rapper. So there was music in my house all the time.
And if music was a constant presence in the household so too was Priscilla. Her mother was protective, and kept her at home as much as possible.
Renea: I used to think she was mean, but now I realize she was trying to prepare me for the world, because the world is savage. Nothing is sacred. Nobody’s off limits. Nobody’s safe, and I think she knew that and she was trying to save me from that.
But the savage world would eventually get to her anyway. Alone in her bedroom in rural Florida the young Priscilla had years to dedicate to improving her craft, and from the comfort of home YouTube brought her to the world. At age 18 Renea moved to Atlanta where she signed with Capitol Records, but 2009 after her debut album Jukebox fell short of sales targets, Capitol cast her aside, and she moved once again. In Los Angeles, she began focusing on writing for other artists, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, and Mary J. Blige among them. But the joy of these accomplishments was overshadowed by an all consuming three year legal battle with a former manager. Today having survived this and other classic showbiz nightmares, Priscilla Renea says she’s learned to stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations.
Renea: When I first moved out here everybody was like, if you get a single, people will really respect you. Got a single, nothing. If you get a number one, people will really respect you. I got a UK number one, that doesn’t count. If you get a top 10 in the US, I got a top 10 with the Chris Brown, “Don’t Wake Me Up,” didn’t matter. When you get a number one, got a number one Pitbull and Kesha, “Timber.” Oh well, maybe that was just by chance. Got a number one, country number one. Oh wow, she’s really good, but can she do it again? And I realized that is a never ending cycle.
AJC: But you know that now, but it doesn’t come with a side order of cynicism. You’re not cynical, are you?
Renea: I find the beauty in everything, you know, because I think that’s one of my gifts is being able to see a piece of trash and be like, yeah, but if you just threw a little of this on it it could be really cool, and I think that’s the essence of creativity, you know, being able to take nothing and make it into something, and that’s part of my gift. So, I don’t know if I’m doing it intentionally. I think it’s just a way to hold onto hope. It’s like I never look at something as useless.
AJC: Right, but when you were discarded by the record company like a piece of trash, like you hadn’t, the sales figures had not lived up to their expectations and they literally took down the posters around the lobby. How was that? I mean, that can’t have been, oh, this is just a growing moment. That must have been shattering.
Renea: I definitely went through a phase of darkness. I was very sad. I would drink a bottle of alcohol a day. Didn’t really matter what it was. Got into drugs. But I was just trying not to deal with life. And I realized, this isn’t me. This isn’t what I wanna do. I don’t wanna be like these people. I don’t wanna be doing this every day for the rest of my life, however long that may be. I have to do better than this, and—
AJC: I almost understand why you would turn to booze after that. Did you not at some point, I know you’re quite spiritual, did you not at some point turn to God and go, God, why not me? Why, what’s wrong with me?
Renea: Oh my gosh, all the time. I would sit in my closet and cry and scream into the pillow. Why is this happening to me? And I would be really, really, really sad. I would yell at God, and I would be like, well, you need to tell me what you’re doing, you know? But I realized that he was tempering me. He was allowing these things to happen to me so that I could be ready for what was coming.
(“Gentle Hands,” 2018)
Dear God, I want a man
I want him strong, ain’t scared to dance
Knows how to work, he’s down to Earth
When he gets home, he puts me first
I don’t mean to interfere if it ain’t in your plan
But I want a big strong man with gentle hands
And if we have a baby
Oh, she’ll be a daddy’s girl
It’s up to him if he does the kind of love she deserves
In this ugly, cruel, cruel cold world
Eight and a half years after her ill fated debut album, Priscilla Renea has returned to performing solo and her 2018 record Coloured fully erases her farm raised country roots.
AJC: Did any of the cultural baggage weigh on you when you decided that you were gonna make, write and sing country music?
Renea: I think a lot of people will shy away from trying to break into the country music scene who look like me because if I go to a country music concert, I’m gonna get mean mugged. They’re gonna look at me like, what are, are you lost? You know what I’m saying? I’ve been in that situation where I put my stuff on the counter and they say this is $40, are you sure you want that, as if I can’t afford it, or as if I can’t read. So I’ve been conditioned to recognize what those people look like and I realize it’s fear, you know? But I also realize that it’s the system because the system in America was built to keep one class of people lower so that other people at the top could benefit, and I realize, you know, it’s always been about money. Color is just a really easy way to divide people. It’s quick. You could just look at me and say oh no, she belongs over here, and I think because I know that it’s empowering. When I open my mouth and I sing you’re going to be affected whether you wanna admit it or not. You’re gonna be affected and that’s a super power. So, I’m not concerned about whether people like me or not.
(“Family Tree”,” 2018)
And they were hangin’ out on a limb
All those hopes and dreams just blowing in the wind
All my aunties and my uncles too
Said “she’ll be back and pregnant on her own in a month or two”
My mama kicked me out of the house
On the day I turned 17
My daddy called me up and told me
Boxes of my stuff was sittin’ on the street
Felt like I had the world on my shoulders
But really, it was at my feet
Till I became the roots and the fruits
And the branches on my family tree
Pain carved its name
And my heart froze like winter
And the splinter kindled embers
Lay forgotten till they blossomed
My family tree, I have watered
Till it’s outgrown my garden
All these years bleeding tears
I’m at peace underneath
My family tree